Philip Hensher: Tories have given up on the gay vote

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The Independent Online

With only a couple of days to go until the general election, it’s clear that David Cameron has almost completely failed in his attempt to get gay and lesbian voters under his big umbrella.

In fact, support for the Conservatives under David Cameron has almost melted away in recent months. A properly conducted poll at the beginning of the campaign by Pink News showed gay support for the Conservatives at only 9%. That is actually worse than the 17% shown in a comparable poll at the 2005 election.

And yet Cameron has made some serious efforts to speak to the gay community, giving interviews to the gay media, and making a lot of the right noises. He has created an environment in which, clearly, gay MPs of his party are comfortable about being open. He has committed a Conservative government to preserving the equality rights established in the last ten years. What has gone wrong?

Every party will occasionally suffer the embarrassment of a candidate with undeclared extreme views. The Conservatives have a woman standing in Sutton and Cheam who has been reported as having a background in an evangelical church which sought to “cure” gay people; another candidate, quickly suspended, said thast gay people were “not normal”. But then there was a Labour candidate, also suspended, who said he would not want his children to marry Muslims. Those embarrassments can’t always be controlled.

What worries gay people more are signs that the leadership is not clear about its commitment to equality. The shadow home secretary said that some businesses should be free to refuse to serve gay people, though he quickly retracted his comment. David Cameron, in a filmed interview, seemed altogether unclear whether gay rights were human rights. And there is the question of the Conservative party’s allies in Europe; how could Cameron could have chosen to link his party with such a gruesome bunch of religious-minded homophobes?

No party has its hands completely clean in this area. Some of us also remember the campaign the Liberals ran against Peter Tatchell in Bermondsey in 1983. Gordon McMaster, a gay Labour MP, committed suicide in 1997, leaving behind a note in which he named fellow Scottish Labour MPs who he said had mounted a systematic campaign of persecution and vilification against him. But the Conservatives had most to prove, and have failed to prove it.

It’s odd, because in many ways, the Conservative ideology ought to suit gay people very well. They believe in personal liberty; they believe that government has no business interfering in people’s lives; they believe in laissez-faire. Gay people have often had to make their own way in life; they are, many of them, examples of personal initiative and enterprise. And, more than that, I would say that they loathe the sorts of petty curbs and restrictions the Labour government seems addicted to. It ought to be a natural alliance. But the Conservatives have thrown it away, through nervousness and an ongoing surburban prejudice.

More power to his Elba

When you go to the theatre these days, you are not going to be surprised if you see a black person playing Hamlet, Henry VI, or Nicky Lancaster in The Vortex. Actors with the charisma and ability of Adrian Lester or Chiwetel Ejiofor are far too good to limit to a few specifically black roles in classical theatre. Even opera and musical theatre is opening up: Willard White has sung Wotan, Jessye Norman Sieglinde. As I write, there is still a mixed-race actress in the running in the BBC talent competition to choose a Dorothy for a new West End production of The Wizard of Oz.

The last bastion against colour-blind casting is, it seems, film. Kenneth Branagh is one of few directors to cast black actors in conventionally white roles – Denzel Washington was a fine Don Pedro in his 1994 Much Ado movie. And now he has cast the great Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall in his forthcoming Thor. Outrage has been voiced on message boards, of course. But anyone who has seen Mr Elba as Stringer Bell in the first three series of The Wire will know that there is no more godlike actor at work today.

If a truly bold piece of casting against expectations succeeds, then the floodgates ought to open. Why can’t James Bond’s Miss Moneypenny be black? Or the Mad Hatter in Alice? Or one of the leads in Mamma Mia! It’s the assumption that characters are probably white unless specified otherwise that cuts the audience off from a pool of immense talent. I can’t wait for Mr Elba’s Heimdall.

A lesson in lack of care

It was a terrible thing that the teacher Peter Harvey did in assaulting a teenage pupil with a dumb-bell. It is no excuse to go over the brutal and goading behaviour towards Harvey which the victim and his classmates indulged in. Still, the jury in the trial for attempted murder had no hesitating in acquitting the teacher, who had recently returned from a long period off work with stress, and was clearly in no fit state to resume teaching.

Someone, I think, bears responsibility for this. Not Harvey, who was not only in a desperate mental condition, and, moreover, tried to warn those in charge that he was dangerously near the edge. Only partly the students, who did behave disgustingly, some actually filming the incident, but who were clearly allowed to get out of control. The principal responsibility must lie with the school, All Saints Catholic school in Mansfield. Mr Harvey told colleagues that his classes were getting out of hand, and he feared he would hurt something. That ought to have sounded immediate alarm bells, and removed him from teaching duties. Nothing was done. What about Harvey’s colleagues, who must have heard violent anarchy breaking out – why did they do nothing?

Some more responsibility lies with Ofsted, which in a report as recent as November 2008 said that “behaviour and relationships in the school are good and so students show respect for their teachers and each other during lessons and around the school”. How could they have got something so badly wrong? There could hardly be a clearer case of both the school and the inspectorate falling seriously short of their duties. The trial of somebody with serious mental problems proved a distasteful distraction. The wrong person was in the dock.

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